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Kona 2013: Do You Think This is a Game?

November 3, 2013

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Back in the Day

On a hot July afternoon in Roanoke, Virginia in 1989, my older brother and I rolled into the parking lot of the tennis courts of a nearby community college.  The facility boasted 8 high quality courts, but due to a recent heat wave we were the only ones there.  Setting up on the first court, I took a few balls out of my pocket and hit one directly into the net.  I groaned, knowing what was about to happen.  “10 pushups!” Hunter barked across the court.  I rolled my eyes, dropped my racket, and served my punishment.  Part of the coaching arrangement we made at the beginning of the summer specified that the initial groundstroke of each rally had to be put in play, or else the guilty party would pay in pushups.  My hands still burning from the hot court, I picked myself up for a grueling 2-hour session.

This day was typical of the summers in my early teens, when tennis was my primary activity.  My brother was an accomplished tennis player in his own right, and embraced his role as my coach with dedication and passion.  We spent most days practicing together.  He taught me proper form through endless drills.  He put me through exercises that got me in fantastic shape.  He exposed me to the power of positive thinking, visualization, and mental toughness.  Under his tutelage, I enjoyed a nice run through the high school tennis ranks, playing on the team’s number one slot my senior year.

Present Day

Though my tennis days are long gone, the lessons Hunter imparted to me several decades ago are still with me.  A strong work ethic, attention to form, and mental toughness are all critical aspects in triathlon.  As my commitment to triathlon has reached the same level I had with tennis back in the day, Hunter has supported me with the same passion.  He has attended numerous races, including both of my Kona trips.  For this year’s Kona, he took family support to the next level.  In October 2013, Hunter, my sister-in-law, my mom, and I became “Team Andy”, complete with official team shirts.

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Street graffiti is a powerful motiver

Coach H knows that street graffiti is a powerful motivator

The Team Andy experience was different in many regards from last year’s Kona.  We rented a house and cooked nearly every meal.  We hosted a brunch.  We had a great day trip to Hawi on Thursday.  We watched the underpants run.  Armed with prior Kona experience and Keri’s handicap parking decals, we had a productive yet low-stress lead up to race day.

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Post-sushi hat shopping in Hawi

Race Day

Pancakes and bananas filled me up quickly.  The team dropped me off at transition.  Although I felt ready, I could feel the pre-race jitters.  This is my least favorite part of triathlon.  Races cannot start soon enough.

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During pre-race, competitors prepare their brass knuckles for the swim battle

The cannon went off this year.  With the speed of a Hines Ward touchdown and ferocity of a Gordon Ramsey tirade, the crowd erupted into the swim course.  I began second-guessing my starting location, which was in the epicenter of the mob.  Prison riots have seen less violence.  My motion in the water bore little resemblance to swimming for the first 500 meters.  The object of the game was to not get mowed over from behind and fight off anyone who invaded my space.   What started off as a family-friendly race quickly devolved into a reenactment of Braveheart.

The crowd had thinned out enough by the halfway point that I could focus more on swimming form than self-defense.  However, by that point, both gaskets of my goggles had been kicked hard, and the eye seals on both had been compromised.  I navigated the remainder of the swim through a haze of salty ocean water.   I would have to harness my inner Van Damme by competing with limited vision.

bloodsport-blind

Unlike Frank Dux, I did not train blindfolded to prepare for this scenario

At this point, the large crowd started to work in my favor.  I just followed the bubbles, hoping the person leading me knew the way back.  If the theme of the first half of the swim was “Get me out of this crowd”, the second half was “Get me out of these goggles”.  Not only could I not see, but the salt water was burning my eyeballs.  My quest to return to full vision drew nearer as I heard crowds of cheering spectators and Mike Reilly’s megaphone amplify.  Once my fingertips hit sand, I stood up, took off my goggles, and saw something magnificent – 1:05 on my Garmin.  Despite the adversity I beat last year’s swim split by 90 seconds.

Swim route per garmin.  Surprisingly straight lines.  Maybe I should swim without goggles from now on?

Swim route per garmin. Surprisingly straight lines. Maybe I should swim without goggles from now on?

Swim time: 1:05:25

After my aggressive biking at Lake Placid cost me on the run, my singular goal for the bike at Kona was to hold my average power at 225 watts.  With an unlimited supply of Gu Chomps, I could ride forever at this pace.  Even 10 watts higher will get me in trouble, as I discovered in July.  So once I reached the Queen K and had a decent amount of space to work with, I settled into my aerobars and started grinding away.

225 felt easy.  Insanely easy.  People were passing by me like I was the jello mold at a dessert table.  “Let them have their fun” I told myself, convinced that most people start the bike portion too fast.  With my ego in the backseat, I felt content that slow and steady would prevail.  I approached Hawi, which features a long uphill until the turnaround.  My power spiked a bit, but the passing continued.  Not as many folks passed me the previous year, where my average power was 15 watts lower.

Something must be wrong.  I should climb up the ranks during the bike portion, not lose ground.  I checked my brakes, and they were appropriately spaced from my rims.  I was comfortably aero.  Everything seemed okay.  Then I noticed my average heart rate was 6 beats per minute lower than my past two IMs.  Maybe something was off with the power measurements?  I kept my faith in the wattage numbers and plugged along at 225.

Bike route per Garmin.

Bike route per Garmin.  Gel wrappers and pee trails will navigate you on race day.

At mile 90 I noticed someone hanging on to my back wheel.  He stayed there for a while.  Pulling ahead of me, the drafter then slowed down, placing me well inside his draft zone.  Unwilling to brake or re-pass, I stopped pedaling so I could naturally fall out from behind him.  Unfortunately, I was still in draft zone when the course marshal pulled up and served us both with 4 minute penalties.  My partner in crime pleaded his case to the official to no avail.  I simply nodded in acknowledgement without a word.  While drafting was not my intention, I didn’t do all I could to stay out of the draft zone, and the penalty was justified.   Pulling into T2, I went straight to the penalty tent, aka triathlon prison, to do hard time.

Bike time: 5:08:13

Get busy running or get busy dying

Get busy running or get busy dying

I held a stopwatch to see the four slowest minutes of the race limp by.   I chatted with the volunteers.   I did some yoga.  When the clock reached 4:00, I bolted to the changing tent for my running shoes and visor, then hopped onto Ali’i drive for the best part of the run.

The out and back on Ali’i is 10 miles of great crowd support, flat to gently rolling terrain, and fresh legs.  I held back my pace on numerous occasions, trying to stay in the mid 6:40s per mile.  Piece of cake until you hit the hill at Palani, which puts the smack-down on runners.  On the advice of coach E, I took it easy up the hill so I could be reasonably fresh for the start of the Queen K portion.  As expected, the hill was an ass-kicker, but then I made up some time on the initial descent heading out of town.   Things were looking rosy.

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The mural in the background is an accurate representation of my core temperature

My top secret goal for Kona ’13 was to break 3 hours on the marathon.  The numbers I hit in training indicated this was possible, and my race strategy was to err on the side of easy biking so my run would not suffer.  Approaching the 13 mile marker, garmin showed 1:30.  All I’d need to do is throw down an even split and the goal was mine.  Unfortunately, my legs started to feel heavy, and the heat of the Queen K, despite the overcast conditions, was stifling.  And I hadn’t even reached the Energy Lab yet, where everyone suffers.

“Seriously, call Kenny Loggins, ’cause you’re in the danger zone.” -Sterling Archer

I started slowing down through aid stations.  My kick was low.  The ice I dumped down my shirt seemed to disappear in seconds.  My heart rate dropped.  The hills along Queen K seemed like mountains.  But the worst thing that happened to me after the halfway point, my mental toughness began to wane.  Unable to keep up my previous pace, the evil voices in my head urging me to slow down grew louder.

I tried the "rally visor" look when things got rough.

I tried the “rally visor” look when things got rough.

By mile 16, my pace had slipped well beyond my goal.  Though entering the Energy Lab is a mile-long descent, even gravity couldn’t get me back to my old form.  The wheels completely fell off by mile 18.  I stopped to walk through an aid station, and I couldn’t get my body to reaccelerate.  So I stopped and stood around for a minute to see if I could regroup.  Instead of catching a second wind, my legs went on strike.  The next four miles followed this pattern:  walk, shuffle, attempt to run while wincing in pain, slow down, walk again.  The problem wasn’t physical.  I was sore but not destroyed.   No major cramping or GI issues.  My mind had given up.

At mile 22 I hit a turning point.  Another competitor with at least 20 wet sponges under his jersey encouraged me to keep running.  “If you can hit 6 minutes per kilometer, you’ll make it to the finish in under 10.”  Somehow, that was all I needed to get back into the game.   At that point I resumed my run and refused to stop until the end.

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Run map per garmin. Northern-most part is the Energy Lab. Enter at your own risk.

The party was just getting started at the top of Palani.  I passed the Scott tent with numerous high fives.  I received a strong slap on the hiney from the FeXY crowd.  By the final turn onto Ali’i, I reached my Ignite teammate Kelly.  I tossed out the idea of holding hands through the finisher’s chute, but sadly that never materialized.

This is nice, but a hand-holding pic would have been epic.

This is nice, but a hand-holding pic would have been epic.

Run time: 3:23:09

My day was done in 9:47:54.  Though 18 minutes slower and considerably lower ranked than last year’s performance, there are numerous high points I could celebrate.  My swim time exceeded expectations, although surviving the unruly mob was reason enough to be happy.  I felt consistently strong on the bike, and might even have to readjust my power targets upward based on my next FTP test.  The run was pain-free from a mechanical standpoint – no undue muscle pain, joint pain, or foot discomfort.

Of course, the last half of the run is what stings.  Physically and nutritionally, I executed my plan just the way I had hoped.  Mentally, I was not prepared for this race.  I didn’t come into Kona with the same respect for the elements I had last year.  And even in a “fast” year with numerous amateurs throwing down sub-9 times, the elements are still very demanding.  One must be prepared to suffer at the end.

Day of Reflection

After the race, Hunter and I debriefed the day.  I gave him an honest account of my performance, not sugar-coating my disappointment at my run time and my drop in ranking compared to the previous year.  As a current tennis pro who has helped numerous players rise through the ranks, he has great experience dealing with setbacks in athletic progress.  He told me that repeating success is, in some ways, harder than the initial success, as people tend to forget the little things they did to attain success in the first place.  I took for granted the mind games I had to play to keep plowing through the Energy Lab last year.  My central governor proved to be a formidable foe.

Though I’m not sporting a new personal best Ironman time, I have plenty of good lessons to take back to DC.  Taking a year off from Kona, I’ll see how well I can turn things around at IM Texas and IM Chattanooga in 2014.   Much to my delight, the East Coast chapter of Team Andy will be in force at Chattanooga.   All aboard!

Mahalos!

Like last year, the race experience was magnificent.  Sharing island time with family and numerous friends was indeed special.  Many thanks to everyone who made this possible:

  • TEAM ANDY – Can one ask for a better support crew?  Hunter, Keri, and my mom were there for me every step of the way.  They stayed out on the course all day, cheering loudly, and dealt with all my post-race nastiness when I was barely moving.  Each showed a commitment to be there – mom had a flight with 3 layovers each way, Keri had to move around with a gimpy leg in a medical boot, and Hunter handled the team shirts and post-race surfing lessons.
  • My Ignite teammates – you can’t do much better than this group as far as training partners go.  Big congrats to Kelly and Leslie on their finishes.
  • All DC-area folks who made it out to the big island.  Team Z and FeXY were out in force.  Your support during the race was inspiring.  And thanks to Gretchen, Shelly, and Abby for the great photos!
  • Tri360 – I’m very honored to be supported by the best triathlon shop in the DC area.
  • Coach Eric – As usual, E got me the start line in top shape with an excellent race plan.
  • Gu – Roctane and chomps kept me fueled and energized.
  • Skratch Labs – Perfect race hydration, especially for a hot race like Kona.  If you haven’t tried Skratch yet, you’re missing out!
  • Zoca – Comfy and aero.  I’ve forgotten what it feels like to chafe after an ironman.
  • Cycleops – Watching Kona videos on the Powerbeam Pro was perfect Kona training.
  • Finally, thanks to everyone for all the notes of encouragement and congratulations!  Each one means a lot to me.

More Pictures

Sunset view from our house.  I actually considered moving to Kona at one point during the trip.

Sunset view from our house. Not too shabby.

The trip back to the house on race night involved all 4 members of Team Andy and my bike in a tiny car.

The trip back to the house on race night involved all 4 members of Team Andy and my bike in a tiny car.

Geckos are everywhere in Kona.  Thankfully they don't try to sell you insurance.

Geckos are everywhere in Kona. Thankfully they don’t try to sell you insurance.

The lead group of underpants runners.

Even during the underpants run, someone HAS to wear a heart rate monitor.

The Numbers

Bike Data.  Overall a good VI and pretty consistent power through the end.

Bike Data. Overall a good VI and pretty consistent power through the end.

Run data.  Not hard to guess where the implosion occurred.

Run data. Not hard to tell where the implosion occurred.

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